Our guest contributor, Attorney Michael “Mike” Ziegler, explains some of the situations when you can take steps to defend a home foreclosure yourself, and when you really need a lawyer’s help.
Whether you are changing your oil, fighting a cold, or painting your house, you have to answer the question, do I “do it yourself” (“DIY”), or do I hire professional assistance? Speaking for myself, I am a committed DIYer, sometimes to a fault. As my wife will gladly attest, I spent over six months unsuccessfully trying to repair our dishwasher, when she finally forced me to buy a new one!
The decision to DIY can be much harder to make when it comes to foreclosure and foreclosure-related issues. When I am talking about foreclosure-related issues, I am using this as a general term to describe several related situations: 1) someone who is in foreclosure; 2) someone who is behind in their payments, but not yet in foreclosure, and 3) someone who is up-to-date on their payments, but is underwater and/or is struggling to keep up with their payments.
Deciding to DIY when it comes to foreclosure-related issues can be risky because making the wrong decision could result in the loss of your home. Even so, there are some things you can do on your own before seeking the assistance of an attorney. As an individual’s situation becomes a higher risk for foreclosure, the need for professional assistance increases. Here are a few examples of situations where a homeowner may not need the help of a lawyer, and some of the more serious situations when you do.
Situations When You Can Take Steps to Avoid Foreclosure on Your Own
There are some tactics you may be able to do yourself, without a lawyer’s help. For example:
You are not behind on your payments, but your payment is a struggle (and you want to keep the house):
Before enlisting professional help, you can ask your lender (or other lenders) if you qualify for a refinance or modification. Given the extraordinarily low interest rates right now, a refinance may result in reducing your monthly payment by several hundred dollars. Moreover, you may qualify for a refinance even if you owe more than your house is worth under the HARP program.
Many clients report to me that their lenders will not consider them for a modification while they are current on their payments. Nevertheless, there is no harm in asking a lender if they will consider a modification while you are current. As a side note, I do encourage anyone to intentionally miss payments, but for many homeowners, they simply do not have the option to stay current.
You are not behind on your payments, but you are really upside down (and you want to get rid of your house):
You may be able to work through this problem by listing your property as a “short sale” with the assistance of an experienced realtor. A few important things to keep in mind – first, short selling is a specialized field, so make sure that the realtor you choose is experience in this area. Second, short selling can have legal consequences and tax consequence. Although you may not need an attorney or an accountant to list the property, I would strongly encourage you consult with both of these specialist before you close the sale to review the terms of the final agreement.
Situations When You Need a Lawyer to Defend a Home Foreclosure
Once you’ve tried handling things yourself and things aren’t improving, or you just don’t know what to do next, it’s time to get a foreclosure defense lawyer’s help. For example:
You have tried to get a modification on your own, and you have been denied or the lender has repeatedly lost your paperwork:
The modification process can be exhausting. Lenders have very strict documentation requirements that must be met before they can even begin reviewing a modification. I have witnessed many homeowners who are stuck perpetually submitting paperwork – every time they submit one document, another document is “too old” and has to be resubmitted, and the
process goes on.
An ethical attorney cannot promise specific results with regard to a modification request; they cannot promise with certainty that you will receive a modification at all, much less the specific terms that you will receive if a modification is granted. Even so, there is a benefit to having an attorney who is experienced with submitting the requests to the lenders and understands the requirements that the lenders are looking for. More importantly, an attorney can take the emotional burden of submitting the modification off of the hands of the homeowner. If you have tried submitting a modification and failed, I would recommend consulting with a foreclosure defense lawyer.
You have been served with legal papers…and hopefully you still have time to respond:
This is a big one. Once you have been served with legal papers, called the Complaint, the clock starts ticking on your obligation to respond. It does not matter what you are doing to try to resolve your foreclosure through your lender, if you do not respond to the Court the attorneys for the lender may obtain a judgment and sell the property under your feet. An attorney can make sure that you meet your response obligations in the lawsuit, and may be able to identify legal defenses.
Often, clients wait until the last minute before they are willing to seek professional help. While it is better to seek assistance at the last minute than no assistance at all, an attorney can do so much more to help a homeowner if the attorney is contacted at the beginning of the lawsuit.
Your foreclosure sale date is around the corner, or has already taken place:
Even at the 11th hour, if you are days away from the foreclosure sale, or even if the foreclosure sale has taken place and you are still in the property, I would recommend consulting with an attorney. If the sale has not taken place, there may still be an opportunity for an attorney to stop the sale. Even where the sale has already taken place, in very narrow circumstances,
the attorney may be able to get the sale set aside. Alternatively, the attorney may be able to negotiate a cash-for keys deal to help ease your transition of moving.
So, should you do it yourself, or hire a foreclosure defense lawyer?
Knowing when to hire a professional to help with a foreclosure can be difficult to realize. It is not like a clogged toilet where you can see the problem in front of you, but if your foreclosure is not properly addressed, it can become a much larger problem. These examples give some basic guidance, however every individual’s circumstances are different. Because there’s so much on the line, I would strongly recommend that you first consult with an attorney to evaluate any risks before attempting to resolve your situation by “DIY” efforts.
Attorney Michael “Mike” Ziegler is the managing partner for the Law Office of Michael A. Ziegler, P.L., representing consumers throughout Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. Mr. Ziegler is licensed in the State of Florida and the Middle District of Florida. He can be reached at (727) 538-4188 or firstname.lastname@example.org.